Tecumseh

Shawnee Leader

Tecumseh (March 1768 – October 5, 1813) was a Native American leader of the Shawnee and a large tribal confederacy (known as Tecumseh’s Confederacy) which opposed the United States during Tecumseh’s War and became an ally of Britain in the War of 1812..

Tecumseh's War - Rise of a Leader

In September 1809, William Henry Harrison, governor of the newly formed Indiana Territory, negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne in which a delegation of Indians ceded 3 million acres of Native American lands to the United States. The treaty negotiations were questionable as they were unauthorized by the President and thus the United States government, and involved what some historians compared to bribery, offering large subsidies to the tribes and their chiefs, and the liberal distribution of liquor before the negotiations.

Tecumseh’s opposition to the treaty marked his emergence as a prominent leader. Although Tecumseh and the Shawnee had no claim on the land sold, he was alarmed by the massive sale as many of the followers in Prophetstown were Piankeshaw, Kickapoo, and Wea, who were the primary inhabitants of the land. Tecumseh revived an idea advocated in previous years by the Shawnee leader Blue Jacket and the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, which stated that Indian land was owned in common by all.

Tecumseh met with Indiana Governor William Henry Harrison to demand the rescission of land purchase treaties the US had forced on the Shawnee and other tribes. Harrison refused.

In August 1810, Tecumseh led four hundred armed warriors from Prophetstown to confront Harrison at his Vincennes home, Grouseland. Their appearance startled the townspeople, and the situation quickly became dangerous when Harrison rejected Tecumseh’s demand and argued that individual tribes could have relations with the United States, and that Tecumseh’s interference was unwelcome by the tribes of the area. Tecumseh launched an impassioned rebuttal against Harrison.

Tecumseh began inciting the warriors to kill Harrison, who responded by pulling his sword. The small garrison defending the town quickly moved to protect Harrison. Potawatomi Chief Winnemac arose and countered Tecumseh’s arguments to the group, and urged the warriors to leave in peace. As they left, Tecumseh informed Harrison that unless he rescinded the treaty, he would seek an alliance with the British.

In 1811, Tecumseh again met with Harrison at his home after being summoned following the murder of settlers on the frontier. Tecumseh told Harrison that the Shawnee and their Native American brothers wanted to remain at peace with the United States but these differences had to be resolved. The meeting had just a merely tentative character and both parties probably inferred from it that war was unavoidable.

Having heard from intelligence that Tecumseh was far away, Governor Harrison sent the following report to the Department of War: “[Tecumseh] is now upon the last round to put a finishing stroke upon his work. I hope, however, before his return that that part of the work which he considered complete will be demolished and even its foundation rooted up.” Accordingly, Governor Harrison moved from Vincennes on September 26, 1811, with about 1,000 men in fighting trim, and marched on Tippecanoe. On November 6, 1811, Harrison’s army arrived outside Prophetstown. The Prophet sent a messenger to meet with Harrison and requested a meeting be held the next day to negotiate. Harrison encamped his army on a nearby hill, and during the early dawn hours of November 7, the confederacy launched a sneak attack on his camp. In the Battle of Tippecanoe, Harrison’s men held their ground, and the Indians withdrew from the village after the battle. The victorious Americans burned the town and returned to Vincennes.

The Battle of Tippecanoe was a severe blow for Tenskwatawa, who lost both prestige and the confidence of his brother. Although it was a significant setback, Tecumseh began to secretly rebuild his alliance upon his return. The Americans soon after went to war with the British in the War of 1812, and Tecumseh’s War became a part of that struggle.

Tecumseh and the War of 1812

Siege of Detroit

Tecumseh rallied his confederacy and allied his forces with the British army invading the Northwest Territory from Upper Canada. He joined British Major-General Sir Isaac Brock in the Siege of Detroit, helping to force the city’s surrender in August 1812. At one point in the battle, as Brock advanced to a point just out of range of Detroit’s guns, Tecumseh had his approximately four hundred warriors parade out from a nearby wood and circle back around to repeat the maneuver, making it appear that there were many more warriors under his command than was actually the case. Brigadier General William Hull, the fort commander, surrendered in fear of a massacre. This decision later led Hull to a court-martial. The victory was of a great strategic value to the British allies.

The next British commander in the region, Major-General Henry Procter, wanted to honor Tecumseh for his help at the Siege of Detroit. He gave Tecumseh a sash, while offering him the rank of brigadier general in the British army. Tecumseh refused the commission and gave the sash away.

The victory at Detroit was reversed a little over a year later. Commodore Perry‘s victory onLake Erie late in the summer of 1813 cut the British supply lines. Along with William Henry Harrison’s successful defense of Fort Meigs, which created a staging area for the recapture of Fort Detroit, the British found themselves in an indefensible position and had to withdraw from the city. They burned all public buildings in Detroit and retreated into Upper Canada along the Thames Valley. Tecumseh sought continued British support in order to defend tribal lands against the Americans. However, a much reinforced Harrison led an invasion of Canada.

Siege of Fort Meigs

In spring of the next year, British forces under Procter and Indians led by Tecumseh attacked on U.S. territory and besieged Fort Meigs, finally without success. However, they made prisoners. Natives started killing them, until Tecumseh arrived. He is said to have shouted at Procter, asking why he had not stopped the massacre before. This event is thought to be a major reason why Tecumseh later became a hero also in the United States, a “noble savage.”

Battle of the Thames

Procter, did not have the same working relationship with Tecumseh as his predecessor Brock and the two disagreed over tactics. Procter favored withdrawing into Canada and avoiding battle while the Americans suffered from the winter. Tecumseh was more eager to launch a decisive action to defeat the American army and allow his men to retake their homes in the northwest.[39]Meanwhile, Harrison pursued the retreating British and allied tribes. When Procter’s forces failed to appear at Chatham, Ontario (although he had promised Tecumseh that he would make a stand against the Americans there), Tecumseh reluctantly moved his men to meet up with Procter near Moraviantown. He informed Procter that he would withdraw no farther. He told Procter that if the British wanted his continued help then an action needed to be fought, and that they should await Harrison’s army there. The despairing speech Tecumseh delivered before Procter, bitterly hinting at his weakness, concluded with these foreseeing words.

Death of Tecumseh

On October 5, 1813, the Americans attacked and won a victory over the British and Native Americans at the Battle of the Thames, near Moraviantown. Tecumseh was killed, and shortly after the battle, most tribes of his confederacy surrendered to Harrison at Detroit.[42] As to the actual circumstances surrounding Tecumseh’s death, “the Americans claimed that [he] was killed by Colonel Richard Johnson during a cavalry charge. But the Wyandott historian Peter D. Clarke wrote, after talking with Indians who had fought in the battle:”

Among the retreating Indians was a Potawatamie brave, who, on perceiving an American officer (supposed to be Colonel Johnson) on horse, close upon him, turned to tomahawk his pursuer, but was shot down by him with his pistol. […] The fallen Potawatamie brave was probably taken for Tecumseh by some of Harrison’s infantry, and mutilated soon after the battle.

A half-Indian and half-white, named William Caldwell, whilst retreating, after the last encounter, overtook and passed Tecumseh, who was walking along slowly, using his rifle for a staff—when asked by Caldwell if he was wounded, he replied in English, ” I am shot “— Caldwell noticed where a rifle bullet had penetrated his breast, through his buckskin hunting coat. His body was found by his friends, where he had laid down to die, untouched, within the vicinity of the battle ground.

After the Fall of Tecumseh

Tecumseh’s death and the defeat of the British-native alliance was a decisive blow to the Native front. It had larger implications during negotiations for the Treaty of Ghent. During the treaty process, the British called for the United States to return lands in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan to the natives. The British strategy for decades had been to create a buffer state to block American expansion. The Americans refused to consider a buffer state and the proposal was dropped. Although Article IX of the treaty included provisions to restore to Natives “all possessions, rights and privileges which they may have enjoyed, or been entitled to in 1811”, the provisions were unenforceable.